Just Another Western: Firefly and the Brilliance of Things We’ve Seen Before
The thing about Firefly is that it’s classic.
Not necessarily “a classic”, though plenty might argue for that status, your author among them. But what Firefly inarguably is, is classic. In just one season, the show managed a maturity far beyond what some programs achieve in lengthy runs. It demonstrated an age beyond its years. And it did it all by shamelessly cribbing and paying homage to a generation of brilliant but largely disregarded Westerns, doing more than it’s part in ushering in the current renaissance of the genre.
Firefly is not, at the end of the day, an utterly original work. That’s not said to take anything away from it—just to call a thing what it is. Before Firefly, Whedon did some serious genre bending with Buffy, taking elements from horror, comedy, and teen melodrama, mixing well, and producing through alchemical means an utterly new creature. Not so with Firefly. The show begs the question “what if instead of horses, cowboys had spaceships?” and pretty much stops when it gets to the answer. Considering the answer is “they would pretty much still be cowboys”, this is the exact right thing to do.
For all its snappy one-liners and rousing chases through deep space, Firefly is most beautiful—and most effective—in its simplicity. The show envisions the depths of outer space and humankind’s very future into the classic setting of for any Western, and does so it with the utmost elegance. Firefly’s space is the space of an untamed frontier, shattered by the repercussions of war and peopled in seemingly equal parts by ranchers and outlaws, vigilantes and lawmen. It’s a rough and tumble place, a future made primitive, where the progress of mankind means trudging through plenty of cow flops, and making victims out of whole societies of innocent people. It’s the American Old West writ large, and there’s perhaps no surprise in the fact that every planet that the motley crew of the Serenity touches down upon looks like it could have been pulled from Monument Valley or the scrub plains of Oklahoma.
From our first introductions to the crew, it’s made clear that we’re not going to meet anyone new. We know all of these characters—all we need to do is remember how great they can be. The Honorable Outlaw. The Loyal Sidekick. The Goofy Getaway Man. The Hooker with a Heart of Gold. The Wandering Priest. The Kid. The Dandy. The Doltish Mercenary. There’s a bit of an X-factor in River, but beyond that, these archetypes are comforting and familiar. That they’re brought to life by a cast with what can only be described as utterly remarkable chemistry is a credit to the entire ensemble, but as far as the types of people they’re portraying are concerned, we’ve been down this road before. By and large they don’t surprise us. But that’s the whole point. They don’t have to surprise us. We don’t want them to be more complicated than they are. We want Jayne to be a lovable sonuvabitch because he’s already a lovable sonuvabitch. We want Kaylee to be adorable, because Kaylee is adorable.
Firefly borrows not only the physical space and group dynamic of Westerns, but even the story structure, which will be familiar to anyone who grew up on late night reruns of Kung Fu or Sunday morning marathons of Have Gun–Will Travel. The crew blows into an out of the way town looking for work, only to find trouble. They topple the local petty tyrant or scam the thuggish bureaucracy, and they jet off into the sunset and over the horizon. There’s snappy dialogue and out of nowhere bits of brilliant storytelling. But the frame remains a sparse one, and less than complex.
The great shame of Firefly is that it got just one season, shining brightly but all too briefly. But that brevity may also be the thing most responsible for keeping its legacy untarnished. Firefly didn’t last long enough to go south on us. Where Buffy is fondly remembered, it also bears the weight of two—now three, depending on whether you’re counting the canonical Season 8 comics published by Dark Horse—seasons of what can generously be termed mediocrity. Buffy is a significant other; there were good times and bad times, spats and lovers quarrels…